Introduction and background to the study

Select this link for the PDF version: Introduction and background to the study section

This document outlines the theoretical and methodological processes that underpinned the development of a capabilities and capitals-based framework (or matrix) that focusses on how first-in-family students persist at university. This project was funded by the Australian Research Council (DP170100705) and its overall objective has been to increase understanding of how students persist at university in order to provide targeted support for those individuals considering departure, particularly those from educationally disadvantaged or ‘equity’[1] groups. The project builds upon related findings that have outlined how first-in-family students utilise existing cultural, familial and knowledge capitals during their transition into, and engagement with, university (for example O’Shea, 2018  ,2016; O’Shea, May, Stone, & Delahunty, 2017; O’Shea, Stone, Delahunty & May, 2018) as well as related studies on experiences of higher education participation for Indigenous students (Harwood, Chandler & O’Shea, 2014-2018) and rural / remote students (O’Shea, Southgate, Jardine & Delahunty, 2018).

The research drew on narrative inquiry methodology to foreground the embodied nature of this university experience for the first in family cohort. Broadly, the project was informed by sociological perspectives (Bourdieu, 1986; Yosso, 2005) combined with philosophical understandings of social justice (Nussbaum, 2006; Sen, 1992), in order to provide rich insight into what individuals ‘actually do’ (or the capabilities and freedoms able to be accessed) that enables persistence at university. It was this in-depth understanding that has underpinned the development of the first capabilities–informed framework that will inform approaches to university student retention.

This framing paper details how this study’s methodology and theoretical underpinnings provided the scope for the development of this framework and is intended to provide context for end users, it could also be usefully applied to similar studies in the field which are developing a methodology or theoretical framing (with acknowledgement!). This overview deals will some relatively complex theories and also details the various stages of the research design and data analysis, as a result not all sections will interest a broad readership and for this reason, most sections can be read in isolation and the reader is encouraged to dip in and out at their discretion.

Theoretical Background

Wilson-Strydom (2015) defines two ways in which the capabilities approach can assist in understanding education participation and achievement. The first refers to the ‘capability’ to actually engage in education while the second refers to how the ‘fertile functioning of being educated’ (p.57) impact on the development of associated capabilities such as locating employment or participating knowledgeably in political processes or similar. A key part of the first understanding (the capability to engage) implicitly relates to persisting and achieving in education.

There are four main reasons why the capabilities approach is a valuable theoretical framing when examining or theorising social justice in education. Primarily, this particular approach allows recognition of both the ‘intrinsic’ and ‘instrumental value’ of education while also (and importantly) foregrounding social justice and its redistributive properties. Another rationale for using this approach is that it centralises ‘agency’ within the educational access field and finally provides a ‘space’ to consider the particular capabilities required to achieve ‘educational / pedagogic rights’ (Wilson-Strydom, 2015, p. 58). The capabilities approach also fundamentally provides a rich lens for conceptually understanding the ways in which students enact persistence in HE, focussing on what students actually ‘do’ and the skills or experiences they draw upon to negotiate the stratified nature of university. As Wilson-Strydom so clearly articulates (and drawing on Walker’s (2006) work), if we consider broad widening participation activities from a capabilities perspective, this allows insight into how ‘higher education pedagogy can generate both capabilities and capability deprivations, producing both equity and inequity, belonging and exclusion’ (p. 59). Simply put, the capability approach focuses on the flourishings of individuals, offering a counter narrative to attrition data that says ‘nothing useful about individual experiences of higher education’ (Walker, 2003, p. 170).

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This study sought to deeply explore how it is that students actually enact persistence in HE and thereby achieve their desired ‘fertile functionings’. Specifically, the study focussed on identifying the types of ‘capabilities’ and ‘capitals’ that underpin or inform successful persistence in this environment.  The study also examined ‘conversion factors’ as a sensitising concept in the actual enactment of preferred fertile functionings. Conversion factors recognise the intricacies of the situatedness of individuals or their ‘intersecting dimensions’ and draw attention to what is required for individuals to attain ‘particular functionings’ (Walker & Unterhalter, 2007, p. 10). Further, including Bourdieu’s conception of capital provided a richer understanding of the range and type of ‘conversion factors helping and hindering the development of capabilities’ (Hart, 2012, p. 53).

To achieve these objectives, the participants selected for this study were all at the culmination of their studies and, while each was recruited on the basis of being the first in the family to attend university, all were highly intersected (please see Figure 1). Recruitment included providing participants with a choice to complete the survey and/or participate in an interview. Those interested only in being interviewed contacted the researchers by email, while the survey was accessed via a link. At completion of the survey an option to be interviewed was given (participant details were removed to retain survey anonymity). 42 survey participants indicated interest, with 15 actually participating in an interview. In total, 376 Australian students participated in either interviews (n=70) or surveys (n=306) (see Table 1). Both of these approaches aimed to closely examine how individuals defined and reflected upon the act of persistence within university and the strategies employed in this enactment. The methodology adopted was deliberate in its intent to enable rich understandings of how individual learners, who are intersected by various equity categories, can work within and around HE systems for productive outcomes. Essentially if widening participation activities only focus on providing ‘the mechanisms of fair competition’ (Marginson, 2011, p30) then it fails to consider the ‘capacity’ of learners to function or compete equally once within HE.  Like Marginson (2011), this study advocates for a realist perspective on social justice that ensures focus remains on how people actually action and achieve justice within different contexts. The deeply intersected nature of this student cohort also provides great insight into how persisting at university is negotiated by those who do not fit neatly into pre-defined categories. Intersectionality is key to understanding how multiple indicators impact on the persisitence of our university students as   Hankivsky (2014) explains:

… inequities are never the result of single, distinct factors. Rather they are the outcome of intersections of different social locations, power relations and experiences (Hankivsky, 2014, p. 3)

In this study, students were able to self-select a range of equity categories which they considered were applicable to them. Many identified more than one category as reflective of their circumstances, which clearly indicated the extent to which these participants were intersected by a number of potentially limiting factors to gaining a HE degree. The following diagram represents this diversity of the participants  through a series of ‘chords’; as expected, many students fell into one or more categories with the creation of additional ‘grouped codes’ (where two or more categories were selected) to further represent this multiplicity.

Figure 1: Chord Diagram that represents the intersectionality of this cohort

Figure 1 shows the multiple equity categories that participants selected as representative of their situations. The diagram visualises both single categories selected (e.g. LSES or Rural or NESB etc) as well as the inter-relationships between them if more than one equity category was selected. Each category is represented by colour on the outer rim of the circle (i.e. LSES = blue, NESB = purple, Rural = pink etc). Selection of a single equity category is shown by the chord ‘looping’ back on itself (i.e. single selection of Rural shown by the pink chord looping back within its own domain). 

Where more than one category was selected these are joined by a chord. The chord’s thickness indicates the number of participants who selected this combination as representative of their background or circumstances. Selection of two categoriesis shown by the chord joining the other domain e.g. Rural+LSES, Rural+Disability. Selection of more than two categories is more complex and shown as groups coded as A, B, C, D, for example some participants selected three categories (A) LSES+Rural+another category, or five categories (E) LSES+Rural+NESB+Refugee+another category. The chord diagram purpose is to illustrate the complexity of intersectionality and the multi-dimentional realities of these participants.

Data was collected from both urban and regional universities, but the latter is over-represented in the data sample (see Table 1). This focus on regional institutions was deliberate and recognises that these universities attract a more diverse student population who are studying in a range of modalities and in varying patterns of attendance. Table 1 also indicates the spread of data collection from each of the institutions as well as the spread of attrition rates for each of the institutions. The exact rates have not been replicated in order to avoid identification of the institution and similar to the diversity of institutional type, these rates also vary across institutions. Overall, the mean attrition rate across these insitutions is 21% which is above the national attrition rate of 15% (HESP, 2017). All rates are based upon the modified attrition rates (2014) used in the Higher Education Standards Panel (2017) recent report: ‘Improving retention, completion and success in higher education’.

Table 1: Data Collection Summary

The approach taken in this study intentionally created a space for students themselves to consider their journey through HE and the ways in which they achieved (or not) the functionings (or outcomes) desired. The study design was also participant-centred; students were not only encouraged to reflect deeply upon these journeys but also, were all given an opportunity to nominate the equity descriptors that best described their personal and demographic status. As discussed in the previous section,when exploring persistence strategies it was also important to consider other social and contextual factors that are influential in this HE experience. 

Such a democratic approach arguably provided an opportunity to foreground alternative and perhaps, hidden, understandings of valuable ‘fertile functionings’ within the HE persistence space.  Such functionings may or may not fit with meritocratic understandings of what ‘successful persistence’ looks like or how this is measured within the sector (O’Shea & Delahunty, 2018). Instead, any understanding of persistence needs to be situated closely within students’ own perspectives of how individual ‘fertile functionings’ are enacted and achieved. In other words, how learners themselves considered achievement was key to this study particularly what it was that each individual valued, regardless of whether this value was recognised by the university they attended (Delahunty & O’Shea, 2019).

Photo by Michael D Beckwith on Unsplash

This research adds to our understanding of how social structures impact on the persistence of students from equity backgrounds and also the necessary ‘conversion factors’ required in order to enable or enact this persistence. Like Sen, this study recognised the need to deeply examine the actual freedoms people have to ‘formulate capabilities’ or valued doings and beings, as these conversion factors that allow the necessary resources to be converted into valued or fertile functionings (Sen, 2002, pp. 86-94).

Based on this understanding, the creation of a Capabilities based framework that underpins strategies and interventions designed to support students through this HE journey is proposed. This framework will be embedded within the list of capabilities that have been derived from analysis of both surveys and interviews. Two lists were developed: one which was ‘ideal’ and a second which was more pragmatically focussed. Before highlighting these lists, it is first necessary to explain the rationale for focussing on a canonical list and how this informed the findings of this study. 

Developing lists

There is some debate around the usefulness of developing lists of capabilities. According to Sen (1999), lists do not capture the unique nature of contexts and instead he suggests that capabilities should be defined at a local level. For Sen (1999), understanding capability requires dialogue across the community; he is not opposed to lists per se but rather cautions against the applicability of these at a general level. Instead, any list needs to be identified as being both particular and situated, bounded by time, place and space. Sen’s approach is then to offer a conceptual framing that enables thinking to emerge but this should always be embedded in dialogic discourse and debate; lists should never be regarded as fixed or canonical but rather emergent and changeable depending on context. However, for some, this approach is too vague and allows much latitude in interpretation, Nussbaum (2006) for example has developed a list of central human capabilities, Walker (2006) has focussed on the HE environment and developed the ‘ideal-theoretical list of HE capabilities’ which refers to the capabilities developed throughout study at university, whereas Wilson-Strydom (2015) focussed on the capabilities that underpin transition to university from the schooling environment.

This study drew upon the voices and words of students to embed the capabilities list within the context of this cohort but equally recognises that these data are necessarily bounded and limited contextually. The study focused on first-in-family (FiF) students, but given that this was a highly intersected and diverse group (see Figure 1), this generalisability will always be limited. To broaden the context of the study, surveys and interviews were also conducted internationally with FiF participants in the UK, Ireland and Austria. This international focus was designed to test the applicability of this data across locations but equally acknowledging that the proposed list is still bounded in nature. Like Wilson-Strydom (2015), the impetus for developing a list was to enable ‘close-up’ work on specific areas rather than more broad application to human development. This list can then also be used to underpin pedagogical interventions specifically targeted at developing capabilities or creating a recognition of what might be useful (or a necessary conversion factor) within the HE environment. As Walker (2006) argues:

We need to ask not only which capabilities matter, but how well we are doing practically in higher education in fostering these capabilities. (p. 142) 

If the capabilities that assist persistence in HE are identified then there is an opportunity to consider how these are (or might be) encouraged and supported. Hence, like Wilson-Strydom (2015), this study recognises that ‘a theoretically and empirically grounded capabilities list…provides a useful practical tool for advancing social justice in the context of university access’ (p. 65).

Photo by Adrian Dascal on Unsplash

When examining the capabilities, it is vital to consider who can develop these capabilities and who may not have the ample opportunity to do this. Equally, such analysis provides the opportunity to explore what might impact on the agency and the necessary ‘well-being freedoms’ (Wilson-Strydom 2015, p.66) that underpin such development. By focussing on human development with specific reference to how individuals enact their preferred ways of being, this research avoids assuming that these ‘ways of being’ are aligned with dominant discourses and policy initiatives. The list then not only serves to identify what might assist students to achieve their preferred ‘fertile functionings’ but also, provides the foundations for addressing possible gaps in requisite capabilities and conversion factors.   

 Approaches to Developing Lists

The main objective of this study was to develop an empirically validated list that identifies the persistence capabilities of the first in family students that participated in this study. However before outlining the persistence framework, it is important to clearly identify how this list has been developed; an approach informed by five overarching criteriadeveloped by Robeyns’ (2003). While these criteria were developed in reference to the field of gender equality, the explicit nature of this approach enabled replication and it has been successfully applied to other lists focused on the HE sector (Wilson-Strydom, 2015). Details of these criteria are outlined below: 

  • Explicit Formulation: This requires the development of the list to be defined explicitly but also to be defendable and critically discussed.
  • Justified methodologically: How the list was developed methodologically should be clearly outlined and justified, this should be a very detailed account with the appropriateness of this approach explained. 
  • Sensitive to context: Recognition of the specific context that the list refers to is required and this needs to be referenced and contextualised within the list through language choice and references. 
  • Levels of generalisability: Robeyns suggests developing two forms of the list, an ideal one that is unconstrained by restrictions imposed by funding, policy or data and then a more ‘pragmatic’ list that considers these factors.
  • Exhaustive and non-reductive: Each capability should have depth and include various elements, there may be some overlap between the capabilities and some may require additional detail and description 

By drawing on these five criteria, this study sought to examine the ways in which students used existing and available resources and converted these into valued or productive capabilities that underpin ‘fertile functionings’ within the university environment. This list not only recognised how attending university may be considered an individual act or a personal choice but also, how such actions are deeply constrained and influenced by socio-economic and cultural issues; as Wilson-Strydom (2015) explains: 

… the freedom of agency individuals have is qualified and constrained by social, political and economic factors and opportunities. (p. 73) 

If we only considered the outcomes of persistence, in this case successful graduation, then this may mask the ways in which learners had to adapt or change in order to get to the point of graduation. Exploring how students reached this point and the capabilities that they perceived as leading to this functioning (in this case graduation) potentially offer insight into the invisible constraints or differences that were encountered en route. This forces us to question the educational opportunities or choices available to different populations and explore how choices and actions have been shaped by social constraints. As Wilson-Strydom (2005) further explains this may require asking ‘searching questions’ and avoiding a reliance on markers such as ‘happiness’ or ‘satisfaction’ as indicating equal access or freedom of choice. Of specific focus in this study is how participants identified the capabilities that assisted them in persisting and equally, how they converted these capabilities into valued functionings within this environment, with specific reference to the ‘conversion factors’ required to achieve this. 

[1] There are currently six targeted equity groups in Australia, including people from i) low socioeconomic backgrounds, 2) rural and isolated areas, 3) non-English speaking backgrounds as well as 4) women in non-traditional areas of study, 5) Indigenous peoples and 6) those with a disability.

Select this link for the PDF version: Introduction and background to the study

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